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Why the best U.S. Olympic boxing team in decades won't help grow the sport at home

·Combat columnist
·4 min read
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You could fill an entire wing of the International Boxing Hall of Fame with just the American men who have won gold medals in the Olympics.

Start with Cassius Clay, who captured the light heavyweight gold medal in Rome in 1960 and went on to become Muhammad Ali, the greatest professional heavyweight who ever lived and one of the biggest sports stars of all time.

But there’s also Andre Ward and Michael Spinks and Sugar Ray Leonard and Pernell Whitaker and Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier and George Foreman. I could go on, but you get the point.

Since Ward won light heavyweight gold in Athens in 2004, no American male has won another gold in boxing.

It’s been a drought of medals of all types since then for U.S. men. Deontay Wilder won a bronze at heavyweight in Beijing in 2008. No American man won a medal in 2012, while in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, the U.S. got a bronze from light flyweight Nico Hernandez and a silver from bantamweight Shakur Stevenson.

American men are having their best Olympics since at least 2000 and perhaps before that. Featherweight Duke Ragan won a silver medal on Thursday and two Americans, lightweight Keyshawn Davis and super heavyweight Richard Torrez Jr., remain alive for the gold medal.

Now to some, that kind of performance is disappointing. Cuba has already won three gold medals and a bronze, and has more opportunities.

But for the U.S., it’s a quantum step forward.

The question, though, is does it mean a lot for professional boxing? That is not so certain.

An Olympic gold medal used to be a ticket for stardom. From the 1952 Games in Helsinki, Finland, through the 1968 Games in Mexico City, four American men would win a gold medal and go on to become world heavyweight champion.

Patterson won middleweight gold in 1952 and in 1956, defeated the great Archie Moore to become world heavyweight champion. Clay won light heavyweight gold in Rome in 1960 and in 1964, stopped fearsome Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion.

Frazier won heavyweight gold in Tokyo in 1964 and then in 1968 won a version of the heavyweight title. And in 1968, Foreman was the heavyweight gold medal winner in Mexico City and defeated Frazier in 1973 to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

Those men, among the greatest boxers ever, used the Olympics as a springboard to stardom. But boxing was a bigger sport than it is now. Amateur boxing was regularly shown on television in those days and was a staple on sports anthology series’ such as ABC’s "Wide World of Sports" throughout the '60s, '70s and '80s.

Such is no longer the case. NBC has paid next-to-no attention to Olympic boxing this time around. Thus, neither Torrez nor Davis will get the huge bounce upon returning to the U.S. and competing as pros, even if they win the gold in Tokyo.

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 04: Richard Torrez Junior of Team United States reacts during the fight against Kamshybek Kunkabayav of Team Kazakhstan during the Men's Super Heavy (+91kg) semi final on day twelve of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Kokugikan Arena on August 04, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Team USA's Richard Torrez Jr. is one win away from an Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Games. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Gold medal victories by them aren’t likely to inspire young athletes to take up boxing. Boxing will have to split the youngsters who go into the game with MMA.

The only way that changes is if the Americans get a couple of outsized personalities on the team and those fighters win gold in the same year. For it to have a sustainable impact, they’d have to get considerable air time and plenty of media coverage.

They’d have to be in compelling fights and they’d have to compete in a year when the Games were on live in prime time in the U.S.

If you wanted to watch Ragan’s bid for a gold medal, which he lost to Russia's Albert Batyrgaziev, you’d have had to be up at 2:30 in the morning on the East Coast to see it.

It’s just not conducive to helping grow the sport. People ask all the time where the great American heavyweights are, and the answer is simple: They’re playing in the NBA. They’re playing in the NFL. They’re learning wrestling and jiu-jitsu so they can fight in MMA. Given the explosion of American talent over the last couple of decades in the NHL, some of them even opted to play hockey.

The world has changed greatly since the days an Olympic gold medal seemed like a birthright for the best American amateur boxers. There are more choices for young children to participate in sports than ever.

Boxing never got the best American athletes, but it got plenty of very good ones. The percentage has decreased dramatically in the last 40 years, and even a pair of gold medals by the finest American Olympic boxing team in a generation isn't likely enough to change that any time soon.

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 14 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 14 slideshow embed

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